Corn Then and Now

William Collier 3/3/08 People, Land, and Food Professor Thomas Foggin


Corn or Zea Mays is a cereal grain that was domesticated in Mesoamerica (modern day Mexico and parts of Central America) around 7,000 years ago (Staller 579). From central Mexico it spread north and south throughout the Americas, and eventually spanned the globe. Corn was an important staple crop and was an integral part of North American, Mesoamerican, South American, and Caribbean cultures long before the occurrence of the Columbian exchange. In this paper I will discuss the difficulties faced when attempting to uncover corn’s mysterious past. From there I will discuss the origin of corn, and its Pre Columbian diffusion into North and South America. I will also discuss early corn farming techniques of the Native Americans. Finally I will discuss the dispersal of the corn seed after Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and how corn is utilized in modern day. Corn has an extremely rich history; in this paper we will follow it from its early stage as Teosinte, to the larger modern day version of corn. Mysterious corn: Corn is easily hybridized and therefore has more varieties than any other crop species in the world. There are thousands of varieties of corn, so many different types that taxonomists have categorized corn into 300 different races for the Western Hemisphere alone. Earlier, when corn seemed simpler than it does in modern day, textbooks divided it into six types: dent, flint, flour, sweet, pop, and waxy (seen in the image to the right). Today they are divided into more complex categories called “racial complexes” (Staller 24). Northern Flints, Great


Plains Flints and Flours, Pima-Papago, Southwestern Sediments, Southwestern 12-row, Southern Dents, Derived Southern Dents, Southeastern Flints, and Corn Belt Dents are nine major racial complexes of corn in the U.S. excluding popcorns and sweet corns (some examples are seen in the image to the left), because of the abundance of corn species it is difficult to pinpoint its exact origin, but there is archaeological evidence showing that early maize was cultivated in central Mexico around 7,000 years ago. The late great Paul Mangelsdorf, Harvard Professor and corn historian asked the question, “What is the Corn?” he answered, “Corn is a mystery…and mysteries are there to be solved” (Fussell 59). Corn isn’t a mysterious plant simply because of the sheer variety of species; the plant itself was peculiar in form and function. The first scientists to examine New World corn were puzzled by the structure of the corn plant. “This Corne is a marvelous strange plant, nothing resembling any other kind of grayne” wrote Henry Lyte in A New Herbal of 1619, “for it bringeth forth his seede cleane contrarie from the place whereas the Floures grow, which is against the nature and kinds of all other plants” (Fussell 59). Corn is agronomically unusual in its structure; the seeds grow in one place and the flowers sprout in another area of the plant. In modern lingo, the ear of corn is distant from the tassel. Corn plants contain both male and female parts.


The male part, or tassel is situated at the top of the plant, they form after the leaves have grown. The tassel is composed of many branches, along which many small male flowers. Each male flower releases a large number of pollen grains; each grain contains the male sex cell. The female plant structure is called an ear. It develops at the tip of a shank, which is a small stalk like structure that grows out from a leaf node about halfway between the ground and the tassel, seen in the image below. The distance between the ear and tassel was puzzling to early scientists like Mangelsdorf and Lyte; these odd characteristics had to occur for some reason, the extreme change in corn over the years was peculiar, and it didn’t seem plausible that the evolution of corn was a natural occurrence. The answer to this mystery is a process known as selective breeding. Corn was changed over thousands of years corn was bread for specific traits; from the small and fragile Teosinte to the fleshy more fruitful Early Maize. Pre Columbian: Over thousands of years, Native Americans purposefully transformed corn through special cultivation techniques. Corn, or maize as the Native Americans called it was developed from a wild grass known as Teosinte, originally growing in southern Mexico over 7,000 years ago (Russell 127). The kernels of Teosinte looked very different from today's corn. These kernels were small and were not fused together like the kernels


on the husked ear of early maize and modern corn. Pictured below you can see the distinct difference between the less fruitful primitive Teosinte plant, and the more developed fruit of the Early Maize.

By systematically collecting and cultivating those plants best suited for human consumption, Native Americans encouraged the formation of ears or cobs on Early Maize. The first ears of maize were only a few inches long and had only eight rows of kernels, containing roughly 50 kernels of corn compared to modern day corn’s 300-400 kernels (Staller 15). The difference in size is tremendous. Teosinte had the appearance of modern day wheat; the kernels were very small and held together weakly, this caused issues when picking the Teosinte because many kernels fell off and were lost during the harvest. Cob length and size of early maize grew over the next several thousand years, which in turn increased the yields of each crop. This process is known as selective breeding, a process that Charles Darwin explains in his book entitled the Origin of Species. The idea behind selective breeding is to take subjects, in our case corn that have certain characteristics i.e. larger and sturdier fruits, breeding them and in turn yielding offspring with the same characteristics. Selective breeding is a process that occurs in domestication of most plants and animals. Eventually the productivity of maize cultivation was great enough to make it possible and worthwhile for a family to produce food for the bulk of their diet for an entire year from a small area. Although maize agriculture permitted a family to live in one place for an extended period of time, the commitment to the crop involved demands on human time and labor, which often restricted human mobility. The genetic alterations in Teosinte changed its value as a food resource and at the same time affected the human scheduling necessary for its effective procurement. The formation of agriculture was the transition stage from a hunter-gatherer and nomadic lifestyle to more of a sedentary type 5

existence. Despite the commitment to the crops, early natives still migrated and corn seeds spread north and south throughout the Americas. Early cultivation techniques: Maize was planted by the Native Americans in a complex system known as the “Three Sisters” where beans squash and corn were grown together. The agricultural fields consisted of small mounds of tilled earth, placed a meter or two apart sometimes in rows and other times randomly placed. Kernels of corn and beans were planted in the raised piles of soil to provide the support of the cornstalk for the bean vine to grow around. The spaces in between the mounds were planted with squash or melon seeds (Russell 127). The three crops complemented each other both in the field and in their combined nutrition. The crops grew together and complimented one another in a type of symbiotic relationship; the stalks supported bean growth and the squash reduced weed infestation while maintaining soil integrity. This planting process seems simple but in fact was very innovative for the time. Post Columbian: Before 1492 and the Columbian exchange, corn was found close to where it originated in central Mexico, mainly the southern region of North America, most of Mesoamerica, northern South America, and some Caribbean islands. After 1492 and the Columbian exchange corn traveled back to Europe where it was cultivated mainly in the central and southern regions. It then eventually migrated to southern Asia, around India, and from there moved eastward. Today corn is cultivated all over the world. A greater weight of corn is produced annually than any other grain. The United States is responsible for roughly half of the world’s crop yield; other top corn producers include China, France, Indonesia, India, and South Africa. Below the map illustrates the areas that produce corn, and the percentage of annual yield they produce. Worldwide production was over 600 million metric tons in 2003 just slightly more than rice or wheat. In 2004, close to 33 million hectares of maize were planted worldwide, with a production value of more than 23 billion dollars (UN Food and Agriculture Organization).


Today corn is used for human consumption, livestock feed, corn syrup, plastics, and for ethanol production. Maize has gone through complex changes in use in parts of Southwestern Europe first and Southeastern Europe in the last 100 years. In Europe maize is a staple crop and is consumed in dishes along with wheat, barley, cabbage, beets, and the potato. Originally, corn was planted in these regions to feed humans, it is a relatively easy crop to grow and the crop yields fed large populations. More recently, these areas grow corn mainly to feed livestock. In Africa corn is a staple crop that is combined with millet, sorghum, yams and sweet potato. In Asia corn is combined with rice or millet, taro, sweet potato, and wheat. Corn is an integral part of food and cultures all over the world. In parts of Africa, India, and China corn continues to feed large populations. In these areas corn is a cheap crop that is able to support a large population; these areas suffer from a disparity in social classes, leaving a large poor lower class to feed; corn is able to fill that void.

Modern cultivation techniques: With an increase in population and movement from a hunter/gatherer nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one, as well as improved technology there were many changes in corn agriculture. During the crisis of the Civil War, corn became a big time business,


with about 840 million bushels a year. Lets fast forward to 1966 when the national average per acre was 73 bushels, producing a total of 5 billion bushels a year valued at over 6 billion dollars. In less than thirty years, Henry A. Wallace, a major corn farmer from Iowa, “industrialized” corn breeding and laid the foundation for modern agribusiness. Wallace wrote, “No plant has changed so fast in so short a time as corn…in the hands of the white man”(Fussell 67). Still, corn production steadily grew as the U.S. population continued to grow. Wallace wrote, “the progress of American civilization was measured by the western expansion of the corn acreage”. Progress and Civilization were not measured solely by plant expansion, but by efficiency of production as well. The new age industrial farmer produced his crop by employing the minimum amount of human labor, producing the maximum amount of corn. Where the Indian people required twenty hours of labor for each bushel of corn, the Corn Belt farmer in the 1960’s and 70’s required only six minutes. The story of the conversion of a native Indian corn into the world’s most efficient industrial crop was for Wallace, “One of the great and vital romances of all time”(Fussell 69). Ethanol bio-fuel: Recently corn production in the U.S. has hit an all time high. This is mainly due to the increased use of ethanol, or bio-fuel. Ethanol is increasing in popularity because it is easy to manufacture and process, and can be made from very common materials such as corn and sugar cane. It is steadily becoming a promising alternative to gasoline throughout much of the world. Ethanol is thought to be the “fuel of the future”, it is highly combustible and a practical energy source that will aid our environment by lowering emissions of green house gases (Hildenbrant). Below is a chart showing the increase in corn production in the U.S.


In order to produce more ethanol, more ethanol producing facilities must be built to process the corn into useable fuel. 2005 was marked by a flurry of activity in the Nation’s ethanol industry, as ground was broken on dozens of new plants throughout the U.S. Corn Belt and plans were drawn for even more facilities. As of February 2006, the annual capacity of the U.S. ethanol sector stood at 4.4 billion gallons, and plants under construction or expansion are likely to add another 2.1 billion gallons to this number seen in the image below (Baker). If this trend continues, which it is anticipated to, the U.S. ethanol production could reach 7 billion gallons in 2010, 3.3 billion more than the amount produced in 2005 (Baker). Featured below is a map illustrating the areas in the U.S. affected by the increase in ethanol production.

With an increase in demand for corn comes another issue: where to plant it? On one hand the increase in demand for corn is good for the economy, and potentially the


environment, but on the other hand corn farming is harsh on the land and degrades soil quality. The chart below illustrates the drastic increase in land use for corn in 2006/2007 in the wake of the bio-fuel corn explosion (Abendroth). Below is a chart that illustrates the rise in land that corn crops are using from 2006 to 2007.

Corn has seen many changes throughout its existence. It started out as Teosinte, a flimsy plant that was not too desirable of a crop, and has evolved into the largest most productive crop in the world. It went from sustaining small groups and tribes, to being produced by the hundreds of millions of tons. Corn crops alone bring in over 20 billion dollars per year. As a crop corn has been highly influential, culturally as well as its ability to sustain life for large populations. The corn plant is an amazing specimen and its rich history is extremely interesting and mysterious. Corn is an ancient plant that was crucial in the development and advancement of ancient cultures, and to this day is an important aspect of cultures and the economy. Corn has come along way from its Teosinte ancestor, and with the development and rising popularity of bio-fuels it looks like corn has a bright future.


Works sited: Hildenbrant, Dale. 3/18/2007. Allendale Report indicates large boost in corn acreage in 2007. Farm and Ranch Guide. Pages 1-4. Russell, Ken. Sandall, Leah. 2005. Corn Breeding: Lessons From the Past. Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences.Volume 34, pages 127-127. Baker, Allen. Zahniser, Steven. 2006. Ethanol Reshapes the Corn Market. Iowa State University Agronomy Extension(corn).pages 1-3. Staller, John. Tykoy, Robert, Benz, Bruce. 2006.Histories of Maize. Academic Press: Burlington MA. 678pp. Fussell, Betty. 1992. The Story of Corn. Knopf: New York. 333pp. Abendroth, Lori. Elmore, Roger. 2007. 2007: Tri-modal planting dates of corn. Iowa State University. Page 1.


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